Sri Lanka: Rising Autocracy and Accommodating Diversity

A majority of autocratic leaders from many cultures shared similar personality and character traits, found to be resulting from cognitive and emotional developmental issues leading to static thinking patterns that obstruct abstract thinking.

by Lionel Bopage

Many leaders that now rule several major countries have autocratic traits and many of them share similar character flaws “that proved predictably common and actionably comparable to other failed leaders throughout history” . Authoritarian leaders make decisions with little or no input from the rest of the society; often they do not elicit opinions or expertise from experts. They rely instead on, family, clan or a party to help them make their decisions. On the other hand, democratic leadership involves a consultative approach, encourages group participation in decision making and decision are made that are transparent, accountable, evidence based and fair to all members of society regardless of their creed or community.

In Sri Lanka, despite the escalating but fragmented opposition against amending the country’s constitution, almost everybody knew enacting the 20th Amendment was going to happen. Only the judicial reservations made the President withdraw, at least for the time being, a couple of dictatorial powers he was wishing for, prior to enacting the amendment. One could say the amendment, does not grant absolute power to the executive presidency, but it still infringes on the fundamental rights, freedoms and sovereignty of the people, paving the way for bringing out the dormant and unresolved tensions in society.

This time, the authoritarian space can be utilised even harsher than it was under the 1978 Constitution designed and created by President J R Jayawardena, who boasted that he can do anything except making a man a woman or vice versa. He armed himself with brutal ruthless legislation, led the way to subverting parliament and undermining the independence and powers of the judiciary. Since then, all those who pledged to abolish the executive presidential system, made full use of it when in power. Nevertheless, any of those authoritarian rulers could not prevent with all the executive power at their fingertips the chaos and destruction that have engulfed the nation since 1978.

The question we need to ask ourselves in the post 20th Amendment Constitution era is the manner in which we could move towards rebuilding a viable, responsible, accountable and mutually complementing system of governance. How can we harness, coordinate and synergistically use our strengths for achieving positive and constructive futures for the whole of society? Working to defeat absolutist and autocratic trends need deeper insights as to why authoritarianism and erosion of democratic space are on the rise in countries like Sri Lanka.

Autocracy and personality traits

Close to half the world’s population live in countries where political imprisonment and brutality are common. Coercive violence communicates the cost of dissent, and is designed to maximize fear through brutal torture, public executions and enforced disappearances. The citizens need to make tough decisions on dissenting against their callous autocratic regimes, often made in stressful and emotional environments. In decision-making, the information they receive are sporadic and uncertain. Based on such information, citizenry rationally revise their beliefs about the challenges and benefits of protest. Authoritarian regimes, particularly when they are unpopular, rely on fear and threats of repression to suppress dissent and prevent their populations from mobilizing for regime change. Any decision to dissent will be affected by the emotions of citizenry that perceives the risk of repression and the pessimism generated by such perceptions.


A society that is more confident is more open to support non-autocratic type of leaderships, its opposite has generated more support to autocratic leaderships. Uncertainty has pushed communities towards autocratic leaders, who are certainly strong and directive. What happened during the April 2019 Easter Bombings can be seen and interpreted in this light. This uncertainty created the necessary environment for regime change in 2020, as people look to strong and directive leaders, who provide a clear and unambiguous agenda and a path to follow.

Authoritarianism is usually characterised by, a powerful personality, family, or a clan who abuse their power and authority, breaking down communication channels between the regime and the broader sections of the society, stifling the creativity of society and its innovative capabilities, with the youth and intelligentsia getting alienated and frustrated to the extent of resisting the leadership. Society will respect fairness and unbiased treatment generating trust and mutual respect, but autocracy will create distrust and conflict, stagnating society to the extent of giving rise to rebellious situations and regime change.

Personality traits

Historically, autocracies and their leaders have been found to be unsound. Their regimes have resulted in many hostilities, conflicts, and wars, mainly due to imposing limitations on the negotiated outcomes that could have been achieved at right times. Examples are ripe not only from the autocrats in power, but also from those who had been in opposition. In Sri Lanka, from J R Jayawardena to Rohana Wijeweera and Velupillai Pirabhakaran, the only negotiation they knew of was suppression of the other and the use of violence in doing so. Globally, this has been valid for many developing countries. The current global situation appears to be ripe with opportunities for autocratic behaviours to consistently emerge and dominate societies.

A majority of autocratic leaders from many cultures shared similar personality and character traits, found to be resulting from cognitive and emotional developmental issues leading to static thinking patterns that obstruct abstract thinking. On the contrary, rather than depending on concrete details and impulses alone, critical reasoning allows a leader to consider the broader significance of ideas and information the whole society conveys. That is why apparently autocratic leaders find limited capacity for empathy, love or guilt. Their everyday decision making is guided by lack of these vital human qualities. It is said that “…once in power, a leader with an Antisocial Personality Disorder thrives on continuing conflict and never seeks peace.”

Sri Lanka: Economy and Corruption


The economy of Sri Lanka is in a pretty bad shape. Neither the fast dwindling revenue base nor the critical issues in relation to post-1948 economic policies have rarely been critically examined with the aim of overcoming their inherent limitations. With the revenue base hitting rock bottom, sustenance of the day to day expenditure appears to become challenging for many citizens. Premium and interest payments for servicing foreign loans appear to have reached unsustainable levels and is on par with the country’s gross national income.

This critical situation will be further exacerbated by the uncontrolled circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. National earnings are currently insufficient to cope with the payments required to be made for imports and servicing the debt burden, which will lead to a crisis in country's balance of payments. Our attention on the new version of the Constitution needs to broaden its focus to take this dire economic context into consideration. To avoid being declared bankrupt, Sri Lanka appears to be counting on an easy path, i.e. by resorting to taking more loans be it from China, India or the United Sates; with the lamentable outcome being a loss of sovereignty. How long can the ‘Paradise’ last without the whole of society participatively developing a way out of this abyss?


Corruption plays an important role in a country depending on the nature of leadership it has. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men…” . The world has seen unprecedented mass protests against entrenched authoritarian regimes, mainly triggered by unbridled corruption. On some cases, significant political concessions have been won, and in others protests continue, most recently in Belarus and Thailand. The promise to achieve results through decisive action has been easier to sell than the more abstract concepts of democracy and rule of law with a system of checks and balances. For example, the Thai and Philippine autocratic leaders openly promoted their resolve to prioritize order and ignore the rule of law.

In Sri Lanka, the authoritarian approach to governance has resulted in corruption and its patronage has become a debilitating problem; making the repercussions for exposing corruption life threatening. Since 1978, corruption accelerated with members elected at all levels of government openly engaging in corrupt business dealings with the government despite the blatant conflict of interest. Corruption appears to have reached peak proportions now, and those at the top appear to be openly resorting to plundering public resources. The governance reforms introduced since 1978 have further strengthened this plunder of the public purse.

In Sri Lanka, the government that acquired power with an overwhelming majority, paradoxically never discussed a way out of this growing and precipitating crisis. The focus instead has been capturing state power and reinforcing it by hook or by crook. During the elections, the primary issues highlighted were securitisation, majoritarianism and protecting the interests of Sinhala-Buddhist ‘natives’ against the so-called Tamil and Muslim ‘immigrants’. Of course, the electorate was made to believe in a super-efficient, super-fast, action-oriented military fella, who was a panacea to the ills confronting them much like a large part of German populace felt about Hitler. Even after acquiring an almost two-thirds majority in the parliament and the almost absolute power of an executive presidency, the current regime is yet to clarify its policy position for coming out of this looming economic precipice.

Amended Constitution

Constitutions adopted so far since 1948 have not been people’s constitutions. The citizenry had neither been consulted, nor informed, nor made to participate in the constitution making process. Rather the very regimes that adopted these Constitutions have been regularly violating it through loopholes, interpretations and technicalities designed to undermine the intent of the basic law. For example, disenfranchisement of Malaiyaha workers; non-investigation of many state sanctioned killings and assassinations during the 1953 general strike, the ethnic riots in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and the Black July massacre in July 1983, massacres in several prisons of those held in custody from 1985 onwards, killings during the 30 year separatist struggle, and killings  and forced disappearances in repressing newly emerging political forces in 1971 and 1985-1989. Violation of the Basic Law has been in existence pre-20th Amendment and will be in existence post it , as demonstrated by the recent killings of suspects in police custody.

The committee appointed to draft a new constitution has requested submissions from interested parties. Nevertheless, public discussion and participation of the relevant issues are limited. While encouraging all interested parties to make submissions, the question that needs to be posed is; how is this going to make the constitutional making process, participative and democratic? Its legitimacy depends on the members of society being the key players in developing a constitutional framework that will address and redress the major issues affecting their daily lives and their futures.

The other factor that perpetuates absolute power is the lack of rule of law. The global rally held recently to express the concerns of overseas Sri Lankans identified what currently exists in Sri Lanka is an unaccountable autocracy using ‘rule by law’ instead of enforcing ‘rule of law’. An apt example - the previous constitution did not allow the current president to hold onto the Defense Ministry, but he held onto it, nevertheless. Pro-family, pro-clan, pro-autocrat individuals are accorded perks and privileges, while those critical are liable to be charged or framed on trumped up charges, sadly not an uncommon phenomenon.. Except for certain intermittent periods, this situation has prevailed throughout Sri Lanka since 1948. As such, whatever the Constitution proclaims, and its legal framework specifies, does not seem to matter in exercising absolutist power by the executive president if history is of any guide.

In that light, the political and legal transformation caused by the new constitution with its checks and balances removed or truncated will be more effective in carrying out what regimes have been carrying out in the past - that is to accord more and better privileges to their acolytes while discriminatively disadvantaging their opponents. This will become a serious threat to the exercise of peoples’ sovereignty in the imminent future. The electoral mandate the regime was able to achieve, cannot be a blank cheque to do anything and everything the head of the government choses to do, particularly if he chooses to undermine citizens’ rights and their sovereignty. There will be serious repercussions on the society as a whole if that happens. 

As such, this situation will ultimately pave the way for an autocratic system of government by an autocratic leader with his clan or a group holding absolute power. The entrenchment of an all-powerful executive Presidency appears to be delayed for later until a new constitution is adopted by a parliament that appears to bend according to the whims and fancies of a supreme leader/family. The increasing concentration of power in the hands of such a supremo would be a precursor to future dissension and turmoil. At the end, the separation of powers, the rule of law, and fundamental freedoms will be seriously undermined, ushering in the death knell of the parliamentary democracy as we know it.

A way out?

We need to express our national values based on fundamentals consisting of a common law applicable to all citizenry alike, values of equity and equality of opportunity for all, safeguards for protecting the independence of institutions such as the judiciary and audit, election and police commissions, anti-discriminatory legislation ensuring tolerance, respect and inclusiveness, providing for enjoying the freedoms and rights as stipulated in the UN Charter of Human Rights, assuring guaranteed access to quality education, healthcare and housing to all citizens, provision of nutrition and special care for children, the disabled and the elderly etc. We also need to have a better way of accommodating the needs of diverse communities not only by reforming the electoral process of representation, but also developing a better formula for the devolution of power; a shift away from the centre to regions and provinces.

For this to occur we need to move away from the tribalist, nativist, ultra-nationalist and fundamentalist ways of thinking. We need to find ways to accommodate all citizenry irrespective of their diverse backgrounds within a united and undivided country. We need to recognise the basic human identity of all citizens rather than their caste, ethnic, religious, and political affiliations, thus bringing an end to the still unresolved majority minority mind sets. This political and civil environment needs to make space for society to air all their agreements, disagreements, and compromises irrespective of their political differences. With the ultimate aim of building a political culture, institutions et al that we all can agree and work together with. The new constitution will need to proscribe any political entity utilising communal and religious differences for the purpose of strengthening their political hegemony.


The constant fear of insecurity and the insatiable need for power of autocrats can be found in their self-serving sociopathic and narcissistic behaviours. Freedoms, human rights, rule of law, empathy and care will be increasingly sacrificed at the altar of what they call national security. As has happened previously, an autocracy will become more infectious with its culture of collective selfishness permeating through the political base of their loyalists, who will now start enjoying political and economic opportunities, benefits and perks themselves, their families and clans at the society’s expense. Their moral compass will be self-serving to their greedy exploitative interests. The autocratic leadership will ignore, defend and excuse or immunise any bad behaviour by their loyalists.

How does democracy emerge from a society gripped in authoritarianism? Democratization occurs not because incumbents chose to but because, while trying to prevent it, they make critical mistakes, blunder and lose control, thus weakening their hold on to power. Structural factors, strategic choices, and sometimes the circumstances will do the rest. Rather than being granted by farsighted elites or forced upon them by the rise of new classes, democracy appears to have spread most often because of the missteps that triggered social reactions. Some incumbents deliberately choose to share or surrender power to prevent revolution, motivate citizens to fight wars, outbid elite rivals, or limit factional violence. Transition to democracy from autocracy needs to replace the dominance of an individual or narrow group with a broader model of sharing of power.

As a long-term tendency, Sri Lanka has been moving away from the path of accommodating the principle of unity in diversity. We can assume that the new constitution as is, or a future one, will only serve to reinforce division and tension amongst our diverse community and continue the post-independence political ethos and praxis of division, fragmentation and compartmentalisation of our pluralistic ethos. It will only safeguard the interests and privileges of the ruling elite and their minions. Majoritarian exclusivism and authoritarianism will be used for leveraging regime’s popularity. Centralized power and limited political freedoms will be the accompanying essential features of their regime.

Success in terms of prosperity, harmony and well-being of a pluralistic polity such as the one in Sri Lanka depends on the ability of its governance system to incorporate difference and equality as its cultural, economic and political bedrock. We need to do everything in our power to widen the democratic space and ensure that the rule of law; the separation of powers; accountability; and transparency lie at the heart of our democratic practice and institutions. It is heartening to know that in doing so some societies have come together with a united voice, for the purpose of collectively curtailing the phenomenon of autocracy that had ruined their lives and attempted to keep their future hopes and aspirations incarcerated in the darkness.

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